I’ve written previously about the challenges NPR seems to face in covering religion. I’ve been too busy to comment regularly, but today’s offering on All Things Considered, prompts a quick reply. A story by Tom Gjelten titled “Catholics Build ‘Intentional’ Community of Like-Minded Believers” got off to a bad start. The introduction (and I paraphrase) noted that many religious Americans feel the culture is forcing them to give up their faith or some such. This is historically tone-deaf. The “Christian persecution” and “religious liberty” lobbies that are so prominent today are in fact new, contemporary, and addressed at a particular contemporary political moment. To simply routinize them, as the introduction did, ignores a deep and fraught history. As does the use of the term ‘intentional” community so un-self-consciously. In fact many, many Christian (and other) communities have lived intentionally throughout American history. Not least the Pietists and Anabaptists of Pennsylvania German extraction. “Intentional Community” is, in fact, a term of art traditionally used to describe that larger movement. Not the sort of novel group (a suburban Catholic one) covered in the story–and now seeking to appropriate that more generic term.
The actual story was the sort of classic NPR-goes-native religion coverage they are so good at. A dewy-eyed account of deeply spiritual and committed people (all conservative–even crypto–Catholics). Yes, they are devout, and yes they are deeply religious. But, they are also taking a deeply political stance at this point in history. Their separation is separation in rhetorical terms only. Their symbolic meaning is as a direct confrontation with the social progressivism of the culture and yet another attempt by conservative religious voices to draw a “bright line” between their particular crypto-faiths and a larger culture out of control (which, not incidentally, includes millions of deeply religious people who do not agree that religion necessarily means conservative social values).
To be clear: the actual contrast is not between “deeply religious” people whose faith moves them to step outside “the culture.” It is not between “religion” and “non-religion,” it is between conservative social values and a culture whose majority does not share them.
The politics were made doubly clear in the story by Gjelten’s tone-deaf (or at least deeply under-contextualized) turn to conservative Evangelical author Rod Dreher for comment. Dreher seems to be deeply desirous of the credibility of attaching his social message to the authenticity of Catholic monasticism (Dreher also seems never to have heard of the Pietists or Anabaptists).
I’m sorry, NPR, you do not deserve a pass on this. We expect more of a network that should pride itself on some cultural memory. This time, amnesia.